Barbara Venezia...
Stirring the pot of controversy
 one column at a time...
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My restaurant column for the Daily Pilot  discovers and re-discovers fun places to eat in Newport/Costa Mesa with a focus on dog friendly places! 

Bits & Bites: Turning focus to food, Italian style

7/15/16

Lately my focus has been on the local political scene, preparing for the upcoming Feet to the Fire, where Tom Johnson and I will interview Newport Beach City Council candidates Aug. 17 and Costa Mesa council candidates Aug. 18 at Orange Coast College.

I've had a belly full of politics, so this week I'm switching gears to Barbara's Bits & Bites, continuing to discover and rediscover fun places to eat locally.

Italian food is a favorite, and there are plenty of good places in our area.

Stasha the Wonder Dog and I have three favorites close to us — Sgt. Pepperoni's Pizza Store, Onotria Wine Country Cuisine and North Italia.

Sgt. Pepperoni's Pizza Store

Sgt. Pepperoni's is at 2300 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach. We take out here, since it doesn't have a pet-friendly patio.

The place is tucked away in a small, nondescript strip center between Birch Street and Jamboree Road.

When it comes to pizza, I'm a tough critic. I'm a native New Yorker, but Sgt. Pepperoni's pizza is probably as close to N.Y. pizza as I've had in Orange County.

You can build your own pizza with a variety of toppings: pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, ham, salami, fresh spinach, broccoli, tomato, onion, bell pepper, mushroom, black olives, fresh garlic, jalapeño, ricotta, pineapple, artichoke heart, fresh basil, fresh cilantro, chicken, fresh mozzarella, bacon, pesto. Pricing varies depending on the number of toppings and the pizza size.

I'm partial to the margherita pizza – 14-inch, $16; 18-inch, $24 – with fresh tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil.

Another good choice is the homemade lasagna: mozzarella, ricotta, Romano cheese, spinach and Parmesan served with two garlic knots, $10.50.

I've served up to three people with it and like to pair it with the Caesar salad, $8.

You can eat at the restaurant — it's small, nothing fancy, but it is kid-friendly, with games to occupy the little ones.

Beer and wine are available. You can check out sgtpepps.com for online ordering, takeout, delivery and full menu listings.

Sgt. Pepperoni's is open for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Onotria Wine Country Cuisine

Down Bristol Street is another of my go-to Italian places, Onotria Wine Country Cuisine, 2831 Bristol, Costa Mesa.

There's a small outdoor dog-friendly dining patio.

The place doesn't have the greatest street signage so it's easy to miss. When you do find it, enter the driveway and travel to the back of the building for valet parking and the restaurant entrance.

The interior is bright and cheerful, with a wine country vibe.

It's a good-size place with a couple of private rooms for intimate gatherings.

The staff goes out of its way to be friendly and engaging. Every server we've had here has had a winning personality that added to our dining experience.

Specializing in traditional farm-to-table Italian cuisine, "all food products are 100% natural hormone-free, antibiotic-free and of the highest quality of organic and biodynamic seasonal offerings," according to the restaurant's website, onotria.com.

Two of my pasta favorites are rigatoni with San Marzano tomato sauce, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil ($18) and the orecchiette with roasted garlic, pork sausage in a rapine pesto with Pecorino cheese ($16).

Onotria's menu suggests wines with each entrée category — for example, with the pastas listed above, it suggests "full body and bold red wines."

The food menu is extensive, including fish, poultry and meat entrees such as Veal Sausage Cassoulet with white cabbage and cannellini beans ($22) and a half chicken, brick-pressed and seasoned with a mustard, lemon and garlic sauce ($26).

Lunch and dinner reservations are suggested and can be made at opentable.com or (714) 641-5952.

North Italia

The newest Italian place I've added to my list, North Italia, is in a shopping center right before the 405 Freeway at 2957 Michelson Drive, Irvine.

I usually avoid this center because parking is so difficult, but there's valet parking for North Italia.

The restaurant has a large outdoor dog-welcoming patio, and the food is quite good.

The interior is light and airy, but the noise is a bit loud when the place is crowded, which it usually is.

Pastas are made fresh daily, with unique offerings such as Short Rib Radiatori, Parmesan cream, fresh horseradish, wilted arugula and herbed bread crumbs ($21) and Squid Ink Mafaldine with white shrimp, calamari, acqua pazza, mint, fennel pollen and Calabrian chili ($22).

For reservations and full lunch and dinner menus, visitnorthitaliarestaurant.com/locations/irvine.

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Barbara's Bits & Bites: New Ritz fails to live up to its name

3/3/16

On my quest to discover and rediscover fun restaurants in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, this month I was eager to try the new Ritz Prime Seafood, 2801 W. Coast Highway on Mariners Mile in Newport Beach.

I'd been a fan of the iconic Ritz restaurant in Fashion Island for many years.

I'd also followed the saga of its closing since the beginning in 2011 when it lost its lease, won an extension in 2013, and then finally closed in February 2014 with the promise the Ritz would rise again and be given new life by the company Grill Concepts.

So has it?

Not by a long shot.

The only thing similar between this new place and the old restaurant is the Ritz logo on the building. That's where the similarity begins and ends.

Last week a friend and I headed there for dinner.

By the end of the evening I'd regret this decision.

Valet parking is shared with Billy's By Beach, which remains a popular hot spot, so maneuvering through the crowded lot was a bit challenging.

Parking costs $6, and the Ritz doesn't validate.

The interior is high design and plush, adorned with dark wood, glass and stainless; it's obvious they spent big bucks here.

There's an outside glass-walled patio with dining tables and heaters.

I asked the hostess if the patio was pet-friendly. She said no.

That surprised me because I could see nowhere food could be prepared on the patio, and it had a separate entrance via the walkway outside the restaurant.

According to California law, patios meeting both these criteria may allow pets.

Normally I'd debate the issue, but since Stasha the Wonder Dog was home, I didn't.

Strike one in my book.

Strike two came a few moments later.

A bubbly waitress approached our table welcoming my male guest, calling him "Mr. Venezia."

I'd made the reservation on Opentable.com. The hostess welcomed me by name so why this gal decided not to address me and not him is anyone's guess.

My friend told her he wasn't Mr. Venezia.

She asked, "Aren't you married?"

At this point I stepped into the conversation, informing her I was married, but not to this guy.

Guess she couldn't figure out the handsome man with me was gay!

Talk about awkward!

Heads up: If you're going to cheat on your significant other, this probably isn't the joint for you.

Kidding aside, we laughed about it and turned our attention to the menu. Everything is a la carte.

We decided to share the Chopped Wedge Salad, $13, with kurobuta bacon, tomatoes and Roquefort.

It was tasty, but not what we expected. Usually this salad is a wedge of iceberg lettuce, but it was chopped romaine here.

Menu dinner selections consist of mostly seafood, as indicated in the restaurant's name.

Offerings include Georges Bank Sea Scallops, $39, with smoked carrot puree and Faroe Islands Salmon, $38, with kohirabi cream.

There's also a sushi and raw menu which includes ahi tuna, hamachi, salmon and sashimi. Depending on how many pieces you order — three, six or nine — prices range from a low of $12 to a high of $54.

Among the choices for meat lovers are the dry, aged prime rib New York Strip, $55, umami butter, fennel pollen, blistered camparis, and the bone-in filet mignon, $64, with foie gras butter, hen of the woods, black garlic marmalade.

There's also filet medallions, $38, grilled broccolini, wild mushroom demi-glace.

My friend had the John Dory, $35, a lightly breaded fish with blistered tomatoes, mango and coconut curry.

I opted for the Block Island Swordfish, $42, with roasted tomato vinaigrette.

Among side dish selections are Yukon Gold Mash, creamed corn, grilled asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mac and cheese sautéed or creamed Kale, and roasted vegetables, all $12, French Fries, $10.

We tried the sautéed Kale and Mac & Cheese.

One salad, two entrees, two sides and two Diet Cokes came to $138, which is pretty pricey, considering we had no wine, coffee or desert.

I liked the food but on the drive home I could tell my tummy did not.

Strike three for me.

Not exactly a ritzy experience and one I won't repeat anytime soon.

Copyright © 2016, Daily Pilot

Barbara's Bits and Bites: The Chicken Coop, Lighthouse Cafe

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from readers is how I pick the restaurants I discover and re-discover for this monthly column.

For the most part it's pretty random.

I'll be with some friends, we're hungry, ideas are tossed around, and an impulsive decision to dine somewhere in Newport/Costa Mesa is made.

Those experiences find their way to these pages.

Though my regular dining buddies choose to remain anonymous for the purposes of this column, their adventurous palates and free spirits take me to places I probably wouldn't have thought about.

And that's exactly what happened recently when one of them suggested we dine somewhere "crusty and classically Newport."

So off we headed to The Chicken Coop, 414 N. Newport Blvd., Newport Beach.

This place has been a local favorite for decades. The food is hearty, well-priced, and the atmosphere is interesting, to say the least.

If you're in the mood for fancy, this isn't the place.

The building paint is chipping, as is the well-worn bench outside the main entrance.

The best way I can describe the interior décor is "crusty," and I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just that everything looks well-used, including the carpet, tables and chairs.

But hey, it's part of the charm of this joint.

We were there for lunch, and the place was packed.

Many were dining at the full-service bar, since tables were full, but we didn't have to wait long to be seated.

Also known as Zubies Chicken Coop by locals, the place is old school.

Don't bother checking out their website, chickencoopnb.com before a visit. Click on their menu pages, and no information appears.

The Chick Coop is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and the menu pretty much covers anything your taste buds could crave at any given time.

Breakfast is served all day, and menu items include Denver, spinach and chili cheese omelets, each at $8.95, which include potatoes and choice of biscuits and gravy or toast.

On the lunch menu, offered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., $8.95 seems to be the magic number for most entrees.

All lunches include fries and salad; sandwiches come with choice of fries or coleslaw. There's a wide selection offered here.

Sandwiches include a turkey and bacon sub, cheeseburger, turkey burger, smoked barbecued brisket of beef, patty melt, turkey club, meatball, Philly cheese steak and more, each $8.95.

We tried the brisket, patty melt and tuna, which were all tasty and the portion size was plentiful. We certainly will return again.

Another place I was eager to revisit this month was the newly opened Lighthouse Café, 1600 West Balboa Blvd., in Marina Park.

Readers may remember I wrote about this place before it launched in December, talking about its head chef, Ryan Sumner, son of Irvine Ranch co-owner Robin Kramer.

So I was interested in seeing how things were going for Sumner and the Lighthouse a month after the grand opening.

Having Stasha the Wonder Dog in tow one Saturday morning, we dined on the doggy-friendly outdoor patio under comfy heaters.

Feet from the sand overlooking the harbor, Stasha wasn't the only pampered pooch dining out for breakfast. More than half the tables had dogs along.

The pumpkin and oats pancakes, $10.95, were my favorite item here.

Also good were the traditional eggs Benedict, $13.95, and the Lighthouse omelet, $11.95, with spinach, tomatoes, bacon, Cheddar cheese, avocado.

I've also been back for lunch.

Try the turkey burger with cranberry chutney, arugula, tomato, caramelized onions, Brioche bun and fries, $12.95.

My friend ordered the short rib poutine, $10.95, with gravy, arugula, fries, cheese curd, fried egg and pickled pearl onions.

She wasn't crazy about it and explained to Chef Ryan the menu description was a bit misleading. She hadn't expected chopped, tiny pieces of short ribs.

I loved the Lighthouse, hated the parking. Spots are plentiful, but paying is a real pain. Here's a tip — take a picture of your license plate when leaving the car. It'll save you a frustrated walk back later. You'll need it for the pay station process, which is cumbersome.

On a touch screen you have to choose a language, enter your plate number, bypass another screen if you don't have a coupon, and choose how many hours to pay for, then insert a credit card in the reader.

I had to do this twice before it read my card, and so did the gal after me.

If you mess up any of these stages, you go right back to the first screen.

Two hours cost me $3.50

I watched others navigating the pay station. Everyone seemed to be experiencing some angst with this; language was colorful.

The city needs to rethink its program here before the summer crowds roll in.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached atbvontv1@gmail.com. Listen to her weekly radio segment on "Sunday Brunch with Tom and Lynn" from 11 a.m. to noon on KOCI/101.5 FM.

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